Saturday, January 06, 2007


I have travelled backwards in time: I am working as a clerk in a Dickens novel. Inkpots and quills would hardly be more foreign to me than all this apparatus for generating, copying, and shuffling paper. Copiers, faxes, staplers, paper-folders, post-its, envelope-moisteners, file folders, white-out, paper-clips, file cabinets -- it all seems very quaint to me. For years I have worked without paper.

Now, in my new office, I am immersed in it. I printed off 154 thank-you letters, today, each of which will be signed by hand, and 154 envelopes, which I will duly stuff, seal, and stamp tomorrow. I have a ten foot long table in my office, and every inch of it holds piles of paper-clipped, stapled, and post-it-ed papers. Checks. Deposit slips. Stock transfers. Copies, and copies of copies, of letters and notes. I'm learning to change ten-key tapes and refill toner. Learning that pink edges on the credit card machine mean its spool is about empty. I guess if you cut your teeth in a paper office, the huge array of devices and instruments for manipulating paper -- many of them enchantingly clever -- all seem normal. Meeting them all at once, though, is a bit overwhelming.

It's not that they don't have the technology for liberating themselves from paper. Their computers are networked and backed up; they have share drives and email, and they use them, after their fashion. But anything of importance gets printed out. Conveying information to someone else generally means copying a piece of paper, adding a note to it, and carrying it to their office. Or faxing it to some other office, where no doubt it is copied and annotated and carried about again. In a back room down the hall are stacks and stacks of boxes filled with old paper; it all washes up there eventually. And this organization is only ten years old. How much paper do older organizations have, I wonder? And where do they keep it all?

Paper -- well, I love it; a well-bound and printed book is a joy and a wonder, and a notebook of brand new paper has always made my heart beat faster. But. You can't search it. You can't sort it. You can't "sed" it or "awk" it or spell-check it. It just -- sits there. In one place. If it gets filed in the wrong place, your chances of ever finding it again are miniscule. It can fall behind desks, blow out windows, catch on fire. It's horribly vulnerable and unwieldy.

But for now, its quaintness delights me. I'm glad I got a chance to work this way, before it all disappears.

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